Smartphones and tablets may be making you sleepless, fat and sick

Using back-lit devices and laptops decreases melatonin, researchers find

Having trouble sleeping? Gaining a bit of weight?

Your smartphone or computer might be to blame.

Actually, the problem is more likely about your obsession with your laptop and devices than the devices themselves.

A new study from researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. shows that even a two-hour exposure to any backlit device - smartphone, laptop, tablet - suppresses your body's ability to produce melatonin, which could cause sleeplessness, especially in teens and seniors.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulates the body's sleep clock.

The study also showed that exposure to back lighting over the course of "many consecutive" years could also lead to an increased risk for obesity and diabetes, as well as breast cancer.

"Technology developments have led to bigger and brighter televisions, computer screens, and cell phones," said university researcher Brittany Wood, who worked on the study. "This is particularly worrisome in populations such as young adults and adolescents, who already tend to be night owls."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said he's not surprised that devices are affecting health because so many people are obsessive about them, constantly keeping them close by - even when they're sleeping.

"I can see that the obsession with Facebook, Twitter, text messages, e-mail and the other dozen or so ways to communicate is hurting our health," said Kerravala. "People used to disconnect from the outside world when they went to bed. They don't anymore. Almost everyone I know sleeps with their device no more than a few feet from their head so they don't miss out when something happens."

And when text messages or emails come in, devices buzz and light up with alerts. That means even during sleep, we're being bombarded with that electronic light.

To sleep better and head off other health issues, people should avoid using their devices at night -- especially, before bedtime. And they should not keep them beside the bed at the night.

"People need to want to disconnect," said Kerravala. "Plug the phone in another room to charge. Use an alarm clock as an alarm clock instead of your phone, and realize whatever is happening in the social media world can wait until tomorrow."

However, Kerravala noted that this will be a difficult change for a lot of people to make.

"I think we're really hooked," he noted. "The smart phone is like an addictive drug. The more you use it, the more you want it. It's almost like we need SPA (Smart Phone Anonymous) where we need counselors to help us."

University researchers said they're hopeful device manufacturers will be able to use this information to change the lighting in their devices so users won't be so affected by it.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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